Virgin Atlantic is to test a radio frequency identification tagging system for tracking parts used in aircraft maintenance and repair at its Heathrow Airport store.
Virgin Atlantic will take delivery of the next-generation Airbus A380 in 2008, and the project will assess how RFID technology, which is used during the aircraft's manufacture, could also help to improve maintenance.
Mark Butler, systems implementation manager at Virgin Atlantic, said, "We are interested in the supply chain, materials management and are looking for efficiency gains."
The project will investigate the possibility of reducing stock levels. Butler said the airline wanted to reduce the number of high-value components it kept in store. "At the moment we rely on staff to update our Ultramain engineering management system," he said.
Butler will look at how RFID technology can help Virgin to comply with Civil Aviation Authority and International Air Transport Association regulations, which require airlines to provide proof of the legitimacy and history of aircraft components.
Last year Airbus and Boeing announced plans to develop a single RFID specification for RFID tags used within the aircraft supply chain.
However, Butler has concerns about how RFID technology will work in commercial airline maintenance.
Aircraft components are often shipped in metal crates and stored in metal cages, which can disrupt radio signals. The pilot project aims to show whether the UHF tags will be be effective under these conditions.
Butler is also concerned about EU regulations relating to the bandwidth used by UHF-based tags. "EU regulation is more stringent than the US," he said.
The risk, he said, was that readers may not be able to read tags coming from US aircraft manufacturer Boeing.
Virgin Atlantic has hired Tata Consulting Services (TCS) to develop software for the three-month trial, commencing in September, to assess how RFID could be used to record information about aircraft components.
The trial will involve an interface between the Ultramain system, which runs Virgin's engineering operations, and software being developed by TCS to capture information read from RFID tags and recorded on an Oracle database. The software will be based on Oracle's 10g database, Fusion Middleware, Edge Server and Application Server 10g. It will be run on a Windows 2003 server.
Butler is evaluating two makes of wireless RFID reader - Symbol and MaxID - and is in discussion with Printronix about RFID printer options. TCS is developing the user interface that will run on the reader.
The trial will involve building a wireless local area network in the aircraft stores to enable data captured by the RFID systems to be transmitted to the TCS application.